Why a New Portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, Is So Controversial

For the second time this month, a painting of a British royal is garnering backlash

Portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, on the cover of "Tatler"
Hannah Uzor painted this portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, for Tatler's July 2024 cover. Courtesy of Tatler

A new portrait of Catherine, Princess of Wales, is drawing mixed reviews.

The painting, by British Zambian artist Hannah Uzor, appears on the cover of Tatler’s July issue. It portrays the princess in the white gown and tiara that she wore at Charles III’s first state banquet as king.

Catherine didn’t sit for the likeness, which is the third in a series of royal portraits commissioned by Tatler. In March, the princess announced that she was undergoing treatment for an unspecified type of cancer. She has been absent from official royal events since last Christmas.

“When you can’t meet the sitter in person, you have to look at everything you can find and piece together the subtle human moments revealed in different photographs,” Uzor tells Tatler’s Helen Rosslyn. “Do they have a particular way of standing or holding their head or hands? Do they have a recurrent gesture?”

Catherine at Charles III's first state banquet as monarch
Catherine at Charles III's first state banquet as monarch Photo by Chris Jackson / Getty Images

The artist adds, “All my portraits are made up of layers of a personality, constructed from everything I can find about them.”

But some critics say the portrait falls flat, arguing that it bears little resemblance to the future queen of the United Kingdom.

“Sorry, who is she meant to be? The Princess of Wales? You could have fooled me,” writes art critic Alastair Sooke for the Telegraph. “Beneath a Lego-like helmet of unmodulated, monotonously brown ‘hair,’ this Princess of Wales has as much charisma as a naff figurine atop a wedding cake.”

Kate Mansey, an assistant editor at the London Times, was also perplexed by the image. Writing on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, she said, “I’m not quite sure what to say about this one, except, hmm…”

The full portrait, as seen on Tatler​​​​​​​'s July 2024 cover
The full portrait, as seen on Tatler's July 2024 cover Courtesy of Tatler

The debate arrives just a week after Catherine’s father-in-law, Charles, revealed his own controversial portrait. (It’s worth noting that Charles’ likeness is an official portrait commissioned by the royal family, while Catherine’s is not.) Both depictions have garnered criticism, and both debuted at a time when their sitters are facing serious health issues. Charles was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and stepped away from official duties in February.

While critics generally agree that Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of Charles resembles the king, some were taken aback by the artwork’s intense red background. Charles’ painting “shows him—depending on your whim as a viewer—either afloat in a lake of blood or undergoing incineration in a fiery furnace,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Conrad.

Some observers have defended Uzor’s painting of Catherine, saying that its critics are too focused on the portrait’s resemblance to the princess.

“Painting in whatever medium you chose isn’t meant to be a photo. It’s an interpretation,” writes social media user Marie Therese on X. “She has captured the princess’ expression really well.”

In the past, Uzor has used portraiture to highlight stories of individuals representing the African diaspora and their relationship with Western culture. In 2020, she painted a portrait of Queen Victoria’s Black goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, for English Heritage’s series of portraits of overlooked Black figures in British history.

Cherine Fahd, an artist and lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, tells the Washington Posts Kelsey Ables that viewers of Catherine’s portrait would be better served by reflecting on “how a woman of color, as the artist, directs her gaze upon a monarch.”

Fahd adds, “Historically, people of color have been objects of anthropological examination by the colonial and imperial subjects, but here, the roles are reversed. … This artist seems to consciously reject that trope [of royal portraiture].”

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